Birthday gifts

Earlier this week it was my birthday.

Birthday

I’m not a huge birthday guy. I don’t hate them, I just think attention given on a birthday after a certain age (say 13 for Jews or 15 for Latina girls, for example) isn’t necessary. It’s sort of like New Years Eve, one of those few days a year where people take stock of their lives and promise to make changes, usually for the good (no one on New Years Eve ever vows to START smoking or to gain weight in the new year). Alas, most of these self promises fall by the wayside. I think this is because like diets that fail, the way to succeed is to truly change your life. Accepting that you are a different person than you were before is instrumental. For example, after years of stopping and starting smoking, once I convinced myself that I was a non-smoker the cravings stopped, almost completely. It has been 4 1/2 years since my last cigarette. This is not a suggestion to make yourself a different person, but to accept that change is constant and good.

Before I drown you all in a pool of unsolicited advice, I want to tell you what I am giving myself for my birthday. These are all little gifts and reminders on how I can be successful and happier this year, regarding my writing and this specific project.

The gift of confidence: Not stopping the process because I doubt what I am doing. There are many different things that can derail any project or goal; self-doubt should never be one of them.

The gift of knowing how to listen, and knowing when to say no: Throughout the process there will be the need to hear from outside council. People will advise on the scripts, actors will suggest how they should perform, a director of photography will offer opinion on how the next shot should be set up. The gift here is being able to listen, analyze what they are saying, and accept or reject based on what is right for the project. I thrive in a collaborative environment, but too many times I’ve made decisions to stroke the egos of others, even though deep down I knew the suggestion wasn’t the right one. From now on, I want to know when to say yes and when to say no.

The gift of discipline: Write every day. Revise on days when I’m not writing. When the script is done, spend every day productively moving the project forward. It could be a quick email, it could be hours of research and prep. Keep moving forward every day.

The gift of enthusiasm: 3 days into his journey, one of Columbus’ boats was damaged and had to be repaired. 28 days into his journey none of his boats had spotted land, and he was not sure where he was going. But he remained confident, and that confidence is likely the main reason why the rest of the crew didn’t throw him overboard. Acknowledging doubts is one thing, but never let them see you sweat, so to speak.

The gift to stop procrastinating: It’s time to dive back into the script, so next week I will.

After my birthday party tonight, of course.

Catherine the Great, Community Theater, child pornography, and the Congo

Full disclosure: this post has very little to do with anything listed in the title. I was going to call this post “Learning while Observing” but that title makes me want to yawn. That said, I’m not outright lying to you. The elements in the title are all here.

I was fortunate to spend last week as an audience member, nearly full time. I saw two readings and two full productions. I am going to go against instinct, which would be to critique each show, but rather I will discuss what I learned from each piece specifically and how it will help me in my writing. There is far too much critique out there, anyway, and most of those doing the critiquing are more qualified to do so than I am. Plus, since the two readings are in progress, a critique is extremely premature. It’s like calling a baby fat because the expectant mother is showing more weight than normal in her second trimester.

Monday night: The Actors Studio West’s weekly reading series. As a member of the playwright/director unit I attend weekly readings and critique session. Playwrights are allowed to present an hour of their script, then after a break for coffee, water and occasionally cookies, we reconvene for the critique. They are generally rowdy events, with people not holding back on their opinions. This particular night the play was difficult to digest. Basically, a number of historical figures convene at the end of the world to discuss the decline of civilization. Moses, Joan of Arc and Catherine the Great (I told you I wasn’t lying about incorporating the title) among others gather at the behest of some unknown host (other than his name Jes, we know nothing about him) and talk, talk, talk.

Catherine has a lot to say

Catherine has a lot to say

The conversations are heady. The post-reading discussion debated if this is even a play. Whether it is or is not is irrelevant to me, but the lesson is very important. LESSON LEARNED: Film, plays, TV all revolve around conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Also, always have cookies.

Wednesday night: I attended a table read of a friend’s new web series. She and her writing partners are proven funny people, and they had written the entire series, ten episodes ranging from 4 to 7 minutes long. This was a laid back event in a beautiful house in Sherman Oaks overlooking the Valley, and there was plenty of wine and food which make any reading better. The scripts were about a community theater gearing up for a new production, and had a good story, good characters, and was very funny. This was a private table read, so it was all about assistance in improving the script, which will remain private. They have work to do, but the ideas are all there and they are off to a great start. LESSON LEARNED: when dealing with comedy, details are extremely important. Jokes that are general will not land as well. Also, when you don’t have cookies, wine will do nicely.

Thursday night: My friend John and I went to The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and saw the excellent play The Nether by Jennifer Haley. A biting look at a near future where everyone spends most of their time in a virtual world.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy in Jennifer Haley's play.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy.

The idea is not shocking or new (the idea wasn’t new when we all took the red pill in The Matrix) but what captivated me was the condensed world we were viewing. Focusing on just a few people allowed us to view the world as a whole without getting caught up in an epic story. Just a few people, their lives, and some dabbling in child pornography. LESSON LEARNED: Okay, when dealing with everything, details are important. Also, never forget visual imagery.   The way a young girl gently and briefly caressed the arm of her older companion was shocking, disturbing and only lasted a split second. But truly moving. Also, don’t eat too heavily before watching a play about child pornography.

Saturday night: Catia and I returned to Culver City (a theatrical mecca in L.A.?) for Heart of Darkness, a one-man interpretation of the famed Joseph Conrad story, at The Actors’ Gang. For much of the 90 minutes I was fidgety and impatient. The actor was certainly capable, and there was great source material and a great story. The audience was into it. But by the time Marlow goes up the Congo I was already checking my watch. So what went wrong for me? It took a few days to figure it out, but it was the nature of the show itself. While it may have remained true to the book, I wasn’t fully engaged. The actor played a number of characters capably, but his protagonist was a nearly passive observer. LESSON LEARNED: Character growth is as important as story development.

It was a pleasure to get out of my head and away from my own story, and witness visual storytelling. Seeing the end result as an audience member allows me to add an outside prospective to my own work. How will an audience view this? Will they be engaged? And if not, will there be cookies or wine?

In Exile

A self imposed exile, so to speak.

I can see my script from afar, across glittery waters. Well, I can see it inches from my face, barely hidden in a folder. But I can’t touch it.

766px-Dante_exile

Not that I don’t want to. I do. I’m ready to dive back in, but I vowed to keep my distance so I can gain some perspective. I so want to stage a reading, to show it off, to shoot it and show it off to the world. But it’s not ready. And I have to be deliberate.

It helps that I’m busy. I have been hired to write another screenplay and am outlining that one. I have a part time job as well. And it’s been a week of seeing two plays, and one table read of a web series. Being an observer is a great way to pass the time while exiled.

All of us are often in exile from something important to us. We have other errands, chores, jobs or responsibilities that keep us away from something we should be doing. All these distractions should not be looked at as obstacles or time wasters, but as ways of allowing your mind to grow while focusing elsewhere. Some famous writer (don’t ask, I can’t remember) used to chop wood for hours, and when his wife asked him what he was doing, he simply replied “I’m writing.”

So what I’m saying is by not working on the script I’m making myself a better writer! That’s pretty cool. As long as I don’t remain in exile forever. Then I’m just lazy.

Play Ball

“The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

It’s baseball season. Great writers and hacks have all extolled the virtues of the start of the baseball season, rebirth, spring, blah blah blah. Let’s cut to the chase: am I Crash Davis?

WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers.

I have been a big fan of the movie Bull Durham since it was released (gulp) 25 years ago. It’s one of the few DVDs I own, and I try to watch it at least once a year, preferably before baseball season begins. I could go on about what appeals to me…baseball, romance, humor, sex, philosophy, and great writing. Even most secondary characters have fully realized arcs. It’s a sports movie, and a chick flick, and a comedy, and a drama. Regardless of what you think of sports or Kevin Costner, If you haven’t seen it, you are a fool. Simply put: it’s fun, goddamn it.

When I was still a teenager I emulated Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis. He had it all…street smarts, book smarts (one character says about Crash “I saw him read a book without pictures once”), a sense of humor, and passion for the game. I recognized myself in him, or at least the self I wanted to be. When that movie came out I was already a washed up ball player, only a few years past my last year in little league, where I hit .455 as a catcher in the minors (I didn’t make the majors that season, or any season I spent in little league).

But emulating Crash Davis comes at a price because Crash, at the end of the day, did exactly that. He failed to achieve his goal of becoming a regular major leaguer, having only spent 21 days “in the show” as they call it. He had the brains for it, but a combination of bad luck and a weaker skill set (at least, too weak to make it to the show) was the difference that did him in. The difference of only one hit a week:

He’s a good man. A flawed and complex man (like all our protagonists should be), but a good man. In the end, he gets the girl (a remarkably wonderful Susan Sarandon as Annie) and he gets the possibility of making it to the show, but not as a player. A happy ending…but he doesn’t achieve his dream. Be careful who you emulate.

At the start of my acting career I equated various levels of professional theater to the varying levels of major and minor league baseball. Single A ball, the lowest level of the minors (baseball fans, shut up about rookie ball and the various A leagues and accept the analogy) was community theater, sketch and improv comedy with friends, non-union off-off-Broadway, and nowadays, web series where there is no pay. Double A (AA) ball was paying gigs, but still low on the totem pole: Equity Showcase theater in New York, theme parks, non-union tours and regional theater, no budget movies, and paid improv shows and touring companies.  AAA ball was Equity regional theater and tours, and indie or cult movies that never reach the mainstream. That left the major leagues, the upper echelon of professional acting: Broadway, off-Broadway, studio movies, TV shows, union commercials. When I wasn’t writing, I spent nearly a decade in professional theater. I spent most of my time in AA ball, with rare and brief stays in AAA ball. I never made it to the majors.

It’s not a tragedy. I have few regrets, and had some great experiences. I performed in front of crowds north of 10,000 at a theme park. I once performed back to back nights in different shows on different coasts, in New York City and Portland, Oregon (neither gig paid, and I paid my own travel).  I have been on stage in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. And for a few glorious pockets of time, I was making my living solely from acting.

I wasn’t a bad actor. Reviewers and critics were kind to me. I played supporting characters and lead roles. I had (and still have) pretty good comic timing. Also, unlike Crash Davis and other athletes, acting careers can continue long past one’s physical prime. There are roles for people of all ages, and I could have kept it up, but my process as an actor was become corrupt by self-doubt. Not just the usual career doubt (“am I meant for this?”) but moment to moment doubting of the choices I was making as an actor. I was becoming more and more self conscious of my decisions on stage, and in the moment. I could quickly and easily analyze other actors, directing choices, and script choices, but I could not confidently turn that mirror towards myself. And that’s where the Annie Savoy quote at the top of this post comes in. Those who succeed are able to proceed almost blindly with a sharpened focus that I no longer had.

Plus, and on a more positive note, I wanted to be writing all the time. So I made a choice to walk away, or retire, from my acting career. For the next few years I would perform in sketch and improv shows, but purely for fun without thinking about a career, all the while writing my various plays, screenplays, and TV scripts.

At the end of Bull Durham Crash sits on Annie’s porch, telling her that he’s retiring and may apply for a managerial position for a minor league team in Visalia the next season. He wonders aloud if he can make it to the show as a manager, and Annie emphatically agrees with him. And we know, as the credits roll while they joyfully dance around the kitchen, that he will get there.

And as a writer, I will make it to the show. In fact, I already have. I am not crippled with the self doubt I had as an actor, and am much more confident in my writing, taking rejection and success equally in stride. As a writer, I figure I am solidly playing well at the AAA level. I have even spent a few moments in the majors already. I like it in the majors. The grass is greener, the lights are brighter, and I am not intimidated. I plan on sticking around.